How to (and how NOT to) Minister to Families Battling Cancer

Reflecting on our past and present experience with cancer, we have been blessed to have family, friends and a church family who have been wonderfully supportive. Quite often, people want to know how they can help and encourage someone going through the experience of cancer or other medical related trials. I hope that you will find this list useful as you minister to others. Here are a few things I found to be helpful and not so helpful in our journey:


Helpful: Encouraging me to trust God through our trial

More Helpful: Sharing your experience of God’s grace in your time of need and the assurance that God will be with me as well

Not Helpful: Telling me about all the people you know who also have/had cancer

Definitely Avoid: Telling me about the people you know who died from cancer


Helpful: Assuring me that our doctor/hospital is a good one

More Helpful: Sharing things you found helpful during your own experience with cancer

Not Helpful: Telling me all the problems you had with my doctor or hospital

Definitely Avoid: Giving me unsolicited medical advice about alternative doctors, hospitals, or treatments


Helpful: Letting me know that you are praying for me (and telling me this more than once)

More Helpful: Taking time to pray WITH me

Not Helpful: Avoiding sharing your own prayer needs so that I can be praying for you

Definitely Avoid: When I ask you to pray, telling me about someone I don’t know whose problems are “worse” than mine


Helpful: Sharing scriptures about the Lord’s goodness and putting trust in Him

More Helpful: Sharing a passage of Scripture that was particularly meaningful to you when you were facing a similar trial

Not Helpful: Quoting Romans 8:28

Definitely Avoid: Trite (unbiblical) statements like “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”


Helpful: Noticing I am discouraged and giving me a hug

More Helpful: Being there with me during the times I feel alone

Not Helpful: Not being patient with me as I struggle with my feelings and emotions

Definitely Avoid: Criticizing my emotional reaction or labeling my pain and grief as a lack of faith


Helpful: Offering a shoulder if I need one

More Helpful: Taking me to coffee or lunch and then letting me share my feelings out loud

Not Helpful: Telling me you know how I feel or how you would feel if you were me

Definitely Avoid: Telling me how I should feel


Helpful: Asking how we are doing or how certain things went

More Helpful: Letting me know you were thinking about/praying for us during a procedure, test, meeting, or particularly hard day

Not Helpful: Pestering me for details about things I’d like to keep private for now

Definitely Avoid: Taking it personally if I don’t share all the information you want to know


Helpful: Offering a specific kind of help that you can provide and you think would be helpful

More Helpful: Offering to help at a specific time or day when we will need it (like days we go to the doctor or hospital)

Not Helpful: A general “anything you need” offer

Definitely Avoid: Being upset if we don’t need your help or insisting to help with things we really don’t need


Helpful: Offering to keep my children or help with transportation if needed

More Helpful: Taking my kids with your kids to do something fun

Not Helpful: Treating my children’s concerns and feelings as trivial or unimportant

Definitely Avoid: Criticizing my kids (or my parenting)


Helpful: Emails, texts, guestbook entries on our online journal, or comments on my Facebook page

More Helpful: Cards, personal notes, (short) phone calls

Not Helpful: Posting links about cancer on my FB page

Definitely Avoid: Posting personal information I shared in confidence on your prayer list or social networking site without my permission


Helpful: Expressions of care and concern

More Helpful: Acts of care and concern

Not Helpful: Saying something stupid

Definitely Avoid: Avoiding me altogether because you don’t know what to say (or are afraid of saying something stupid)


These are just a few thoughts from my personal experience. The main thing to realize is that families that are going through a trial need the love and support of fellow believers. God can use you to encourage, strengthen, assist, and minister to those who are battling cancer. I pray that God will use you as you reach out to others during their time of need.

For you who have been through the cancer journey, what would you add to my list?



Read more helpful articles at — Follow Todd on twitter @toddbenkert 


  1. Dave Miller says

    Todd, the wisdom and insight of this post is astounding and could only have been gained through the fires you have walked through.

    • says

      Thanks, Dave. My hope is that many others going through this journey might experience the same love and support that my wife and our family has.

  2. says

    Todd, this is an excellent encouragement to those who are not affected by cancer. My twin sister passed away a few short weeks ago, June 27, 2014. What you had to say was helpful and most helpful is exactly what I wish I had the words to say to those who tried to come to my side during her battle and ultimate demise. I will be sharing this post with my people at church and with my family, hopefully as an encouragement to them as we seek to minister to others affected by cancer.

    Again, Todd, thank you for your insight and wisdom.

    • says

      That’s exactly why I wrote this post. I have this small platform at SBCVoices to share what many are unable to share with their friends and family. I pray many will find it helpful as they minister to others. So sorry for your loss.

  3. says

    Thank you for sharing this. I hope that the Christian community will continue to be loving, supportive hands throughout this journey. I know I don’t know what it is like to go through what you are going through. Continuing to lift you up to the One who does. Praying is something I can do even though I am on the other side of the world from you. Praying for His grace for each one of you. Hugs, Lisa

    • says

      Thanks, Lisa. I wrote the post because I know that people truly desire to be supportive and sometimes don’t know how. I fully expect that as we start this journey again that our friends and family will continue to support my wife and our family as we journey together. So thankful that God has placed us in His body, the church, so that we do not journey alone. Thanks for the encouragement. Keeping you and your family in prayer as well as you faithfully serve Him.

  4. Jess says


    Wonderful words of great wisdom. The day I found out I had cancer my wife started weeping uncontrollably. I had to say “woman”, you are not helping any. When I get worried, then you should get worried, but not until then. I have lymphoma, I’m waiting until it reaches a stage it can be effectively treated. I don’t even consider myself sick, I’m unworthy to even sit in the same room as those who are having such a rough time with cancer.

    It really troubles me when someone comes to me with a long face, and tells me how sorry they are. I don’t care how sorry they are, I’m not dead yet. I had one fellow ask me how long did the doctors give me? I simply said I could go anytime. The nerve of some people!

    True friends are those in time of sickness will listen to you, and you don’t have to listen to them. Everything is in God’s hands, I’ll be honest here, I don’t why some of the finest Christians suffer more than some of the worst sinners. We just have to learn to pick folks up instead of knocking them down in times of sickness.

    I was at Vanderbilt for surgery to take out some lymph nodes. The nurse said a minister is out side the door and wanted to know if I would like him to come in and pray for me. I said “no”, save it for sick people.

    When the Lord wants to call me home, anytime is fine with me. Until then, I’m here. I am very compassionate with other folks when they are sick, but for me I suck it up and put my big boy pants on, and pray for myself and others.

  5. Dave Miller says

    Unfortunately, one of the things I often tell people in the middle of hardships and tragedies is this reality: “God’s people will say some really stupid things to you during this time. Try to ignore them, if you can. People don’t know what to say so they often default to cliches or other silly things.”

    I was with a friend who lost his father to a terrorist bomb a few years ago. As I was standing there, a pastor friend of mine came up and told him that his (very elderly) father had recently passed away so he knew what he was going through. I cringed.

    We do often say silly, insipid or even hurtful things because we don’t know what to say. I hope this gets very wide circulation. It will help a lot of people know what to say when things happen.

    • D.L. Payton says


      My oh my, what you say is so true. I am flabbergasted by some of the things I have heard. Truth be told I have probably said some dumb things myself.

      Dr. Brister told us in a Pastoral Care class, if you don’t know what to say, say nothing. Offer words and expressions of love and support.

      I have a dear dear friend of nearly 50 years who is going through this with a family member. Just this week on the phone I too him i wish there was something I could do. He said you did it, you called.

  6. says

    Todd, really good stuff here. I don’t think we knew each other then, but my son, Caelan, had cancer back in 2006-2009. He is 8 years old now and is doing great. I agree with everything that you have written here.

    One thing that I wish would have happened with us is for someone to just take me to coffee or lunch and ask me how I was doing, what was I feeling, and how was I struggling. That happened rarely. I was a new pastor and I kept thinking that I had to be strong for everyone else – but on the inside, I was falling apart. I was very thankful for the notes and comments from folks I met through Baptist blogging. While not a single pastor in my own city called or visited or checked on me throughout the whole thing, guys that I had never met in person left comments that they were praying on blogs. It was very helpful.

    A couple of things that I would add, if that is ok:

    1. Don’t work out your theology on the person with cancer. I had more than one person tell me about God’s sovereignty and how even if my son died, then to accept it with joy because it was God’s will. I wanted to punch them.
    2. Spend time listening and asking how the other person is doing. I didn’t get a whole lot of chances just to talk with friends. I kept trying to be strong myself, but there weren’t many people to just talk to. That is needed.
    3. Recognize that there is a whole lot of suffering going on, even when the news is good. Anxiety. Stress. Worry. Depression. These emotions come and go unexpectedly. People are where they are and sometimes they just need to vent.

    Your list if fantastic and was really helpful. I thank God for my son and his survival, but his cancer was such a hard time. I hate it for everyone. I am praying for your wife and also for you. Thank you for writing this. I am so sorry that your family is going through this again. Trusting God with you.

    • William Thornton says

      I wouldn’t punch the guy but a slap probably would have been good for both of you.

    • cb scott says

      I remember that hard time in your journey, Alan. I remember the bravery of your wife. I remember your little boy. I gained a great respect for you during that time, for you all had true grit and exemplified Christ in a hard time.

    • says

      Thanks, Alan. I appreciate you sharing your own story and for the additional advice for those who wish to minister to others. Thanks also for your friendship and continued prayers.


  7. Darlene Spencer says

    Although I give you such a hard time, I love the way you can say things!!! I’m so glad you had the gumption to write this whereas most people would sit back and stew over and talk about what “wrong things” people have done, not done, said or not said. You, on the other hand, gave good advice that ALL of us need to hear and the best thing about it is that it came from your heart!!!! You and your family are special, no doubt!!!!! I’m grateful that y’all have opened up your lives as you have and allowed us to share your journey so we know how to specifically pray on certain days when special things were going on!!! That’s helpful to us so we can feel like we’re doing something worthwhile to help you along. I have to admit, I have NO idea what you, Heidi and your family are going through, but I can say with all assurance, I serve a God who knows every intricate detail of your life. I know He already has an answer on the way. I don’t pretend to know everything to say or not to say and although I didn’t “see” anything I had said or done wrong, I’m sure I have in certain circumstances. We, as human beings, just don’t realize the effect of a sentence, versed wrong, can have on the person going through the particular journey they’re on. When people are facing life changing circumstances I try to live by what Jeff has told me MANY times……..”you have two ears and one mouth for a reason!” I know sometimes just listening is the best thing we can do. There’s just no words, except Gods words that can soothe our hearts!!!! I have, and will always, lift all of you to our “Daddy” because I know He is the only One who has the answers. He’s the calm in our storms!!!! Thank you for increasing my faith by watching yours!!!!! We love you all!!!!!

  8. Dennis Starkey says

    Heidi, the children, and yourself are not alone in this battle. Obviously, we know the Lord is going to with you all during this fight. And I want you to know Tana and myself will lock our shields of faith with you all during this time. We have been, and we will continue to pray for all of you. We love all of you.

  9. Louis says


    Thank you for this post.

    People do the Not Helpful and Definitely Not Helpful things out of ignorance and a lack of maturity. I am sure that I have done some of those things with people who were struggling with illness.

    Your sharing this perspective is a great way to help disciple people.

    Hope your day is a great one.

  10. cb scott says

    It is unhelpful to pity us in our situation. We do not want or need your pity. We need you to take us before the throne of God. We need you to stand with us.

    It is unhelpful to tell us that if we have faith that she will be healed. Yes, there is faith and there is healing. Yet, there is faith even when there is no healing. There is faith even when there is unbearable suffering.

    There is faith even when there is almost daily, visible deterioration. There is faith in knowing that God is glorified even in our suffering.

    Not all of God’s children are to be healed in this life. However, all of God’s children shall be glorified and be made whole in the life to come.

    There is faith in standing in the storm, even if the storm does not end in this lifetime. There is faith in knowing that no matter what may come and how great the storm is, Jesus is with us and shall not forsake us.

    There is faith in obeying God and leaving the consequences of our faithful obedience in the hands of God.

  11. Jess says

    cb scott,

    I needed to hear that, I’ve needed to hear that for over four years, now.
    Thank you for such a timely comment. I knew what you said in your comments, but I needed to hear it from someone else. Thank you.

  12. Bennett Willis says

    When people offer to help–take them up on it. They really want to help so you should help them help you. Keep a list of things that you need help on and pick something (or let them pick something). Have gift cards to the grocery that you usually use and have a grocery list. Let people buy the list and pay with the card.

    When you are sick lots of people don’t know what to say. They should keep in mind that you deal with the issue 24/7 and give you an opportunity to say what you want to say. Don’t abandon the person just because you don’t know what to say.

    Never say, “It was a blessing,” to someone who has a loss. If they want to say that, they will.

  13. says

    The post and the comments that follow are the best and most insightful in a long time! Well done. From walking the cancer course with my mother and now my father, the wisdom shared here is beyond good!

    Thank you all!

  14. Gregory Lawhorn says

    By the providential grace of God, I survived testicular cancer in 1991. People need to remember that cancer is not only an explosive diagnosis – it hits like a bomb and rattles everything in your life – it’s also a long disease. I was blessed to only have two surgeries, and not chemotherapy or radiation. But it still took me months to recover. I was one of the few fortunate ones who, within a year, was fully cured of the cancer and healed from the treatment. But the people around me forgot after a few weeks, and I faced the majority of that time alone. Sometimes people want to know why I am so dependent on my wife – this is why. For six months SHE was my primary human contact.

    Remember, beloved, explosive diagnosis, long disease.

  15. John Fariss says

    Thanks so much for sharing your insight. It sounds very much like what I would like to have written/said–not that I did mind you–when I had a heart attack in 2000, so I think it is applicable in a lot of circumstances.

    Someone mentioned a pastoral care class in which the professor (essentially) said, “If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say it.” I believe this is what I have been told military chaplains call “the ministry of presence.” Sometimes just being there is what matters, and most of what is said will distract from that.

    A question however: you said one thing not helpful is to, “Avoiding sharing your own prayer needs so that I can be praying for you.” I suppose I have mixed feelings about this one. I have never done this, because when I am with someone, my aim is to be with them and them alone. Furthermore, if it is done, and done in such a way that suggests “my” prayer concerns are as, or more important than “yours,” that it is some sort of trade-off, or that “my” worries are even equal to “yours,” I agree 100%. On the other hand, I am reminded that John Wesley noted that Christians facing death were the most eager to focus on the needs and struggles of others. In addition, sometimes we need to be able to take the spotlight off our own cares, and I can see where such a request might (operative word here, “might”) aid in doing that. What do you think?


    • says

      Thanks, John. I think that there are times when the emotions are most intense when believers should just listen and be in that supportive roll. At the same time, when the journey is long, we don’t want to cease being able to minister to others in the one-anotherness that is the church. In other words, there are times to be silent and just listen, and there are times where we need to be able to minister and not just being on the receiving end all the time. Thus, I was delighted not only to receive the prayers of others for our need while also being able to support others in theirs. Hope that helps. Thanks for your insights.

  16. Susan Jones says

    These are wonderful. I’ve been through this when my daddy had leukemia and also with my mother who had a heart attack & stroke and was on a ventilator for 10 days. But another heartbreaking situation my family has gone through is the loss of an unborn child. My daughter lost a baby last March. It was her first child and my first grandchild. I could not believe some of the “helpful” comments made by our Christian friends. “You were only 12 weeks along, it wasn’t even a real baby”. Well..YES, it was! We saw the heartbeat, heard the heartbeat. IT WAS REAL!! “You can always have another one”. We wanted this one! “The baby is in Heaven with your parents”. We wanted it here!! Some of the “helpful” comments made our heartbreak worse. We all need to think about what we’re about to say before we say it. Praying for all.

  17. says

    Todd, et al.,

    This post has been good for me. It’s been about 16 months since my Dad died of pancreatic cancer. To this very day I still go through the valleys. This advice is spot on and helpful for all of us. Thanks again for sharing.

  18. says

    Thanks, Todd. These are helpful. I can relate to how Christians say unhelpful things during times of suffering. We experienced some of this in our two miscarriages in the last 2.5 years. We have also experienced these types of comments over the last 5 years after my wife’s back was permanently injured in a car accident. The accident left her with daily pain and in the category of being disabled though you would not know it by looking at her.

  19. says

    Helpful: Almost every word of this piece. Thank you.

    Definitely Avoid: Saying quoting Romans 8:28 is not helpful. Utterly baffled that someone could argue that any text of God’s Word is not helpful, especially one that reminds us in the our troubles that all things work together for good for that love the Lord. What could possibly be more comforting?

    This is a genuinely good piece, and that is a genuinely awful gaffe.

    • Todd Benkert says

      I was going to add a follow-up comment about Romans 8:28, and then I saw your question.

      I find Romans 8:28 can be tremendously comforting and important reminder to take a step back and see my present circumstance from God’s eternal, sovereign perspective.

      What is not-helpful is when people offer that counsel in the wrong way at the wrong time or quote it glibly in a kind of “drive-by” way. There are many verses in Scripture that give me comfort in the moment of crisis and pain, verses about the Lord’s faithfulness, presence, and comfort. But someone quoting Rom 8:28 is usually not helpful in that crisis moment (Prov 25:20, cf. Prov 15:23). Hope that clarifies things a little.

      • says

        Thank you Todd. I would suggest, however, that the problem you are seeking to address is glibness, not ever the fitting Word of God which is never vinegar. As it is presently worded it seems we might turn up our nose at God’s Word and be in the right. I know in times of hardship there is a deep temptation to believe that either God is not in control, or that He isn’t working things out for our good. And so we are tempted to buck against that text. The problem, however, isn’t with the text, but with our unbelief. Believing Romans 8:28 doesn’t, of course, outlaw sadness. Bitterness and fear, however, doesn’t make Romans 8:28 out of bounds. Hope that helps.

        • Jess says

          I think any loss of a loved one either by cancer or any other means is so devastating to those closest to the departed that the word of God temporarily has to take the back seat to the grief. The grieving process is a natural emotion that overpowers rationality, what others may think, or even our own rational behavior. It doesn’t mean we are out of fellowship with God, or any farther away from him than when we started grieving.

          If we think God don’t understand the grieving process, and all our weaknesses during times like these, I think we just don’t know him very well. If God will lead us to it, he will lead us through it. Even though during these times He seems so far away.

          If our objective is to just share the word of God with someone that is grieving it might be best to keep our mouth shut. I can tell you what is best thing to do, show the grieving person that you love them, and they can count on you to help in anyway possible. This is what Jesus teaches us to do. By this, you are showing God’s word instead of quoting God’s word.

          If the ministry is first and foremost on our minds when we visit some one who is sick, grieving or dying, then we should stay at home, because the care of the hurting person should be first and foremost on our minds. If we don’t have genuine love and care, how can we have a genuine ministry?

          • says

            I’m afraid that any counsel that suggests the Word of God take a back seat for any time in any situation is on its face not good advice. The Word of God equips us for every good work (II Timothy 3:16) including the good work of grieving well.

          • says


            But wouldn’t you tend to apply that selectively? I doubt you would be inclined to go to Psalm 137:9 with a parent who lost a child, or Ezekiel 23:20 in pretty much any situation, etc, so even when claiming the Bible’s value in every circumstance, I’m sure you still apply it selectively. You might use passage X while giving passage Y a back seat.

        • says

          The purpose of my post is to help others minister to those experiencing trauma — I am asking people to use discernment in what biblical counsel is most appropriate/helpful in the moment.

          Note, I am not addressing the value of Rom 8:28, but the helpfulness of someone quoting it to me in the midst of my trauma. I am not addressing the importance of the passage, but its helpfulness to me at particular times. Many well-meaning people default to this passage because it seems fitting, but in my own experience, most people in trauma do not find it helpful in the moment.

          Rom 8:28 helps with understanding God’s sovereign purposes, and has been a tremendously meaningful passage of Scripture in my life. But understanding is not what I need in that moment and so passages that deal with understanding are usually not helpful (not bad, mind you, just not helpful). In that moment, I need assurance of God’s comfort, presence, care, steadfast love, goodness — and other passages of scriptures serve better as a “word fitly spoken.”

          (and glibness is something to “definitely avoid” no matter what passage of Scripture you are using)

          • cb scott says

            I think that it may be the case that Jess is stating that there are times when it is more helpful to “be” the Bible to a hurting person rather than to “read” or “quote” the Bible to a hurting person.

            Through the years I have done several tours of duty sitting beside a hospital bed waiting to hear from a doctor or team of doctors. On a few of those vigils a well meaning brother, or sister on one occasion, came into the room loudly and in “religious speak” demanding that we allow them to lay hands on us or anoint us and pray for Karen’s healing.

            A couple of them were so aggressive that I had to force them out of the room. On both occasions they left proclaiming my demise would find me in hell.

            It is not helpful to be overly aggressive on a hospital visit.

            it is also not helpful to sit on the bed of a hospital patient. Some situations are of such nature that even the slightest movement or pressure brings pain to seriously ill people.

  20. Greg Harvey says

    I was talking with my sister-in-law–who has two special needs boys (one believed to be autism spectrum but too young for an official diagnosis and the other a Down Syndrome child)–the subject frequently comes up of how callous Christians can be in what they say. Some examples include:

    1. Reminding her that God is choosing her for something special to give her so much to bear.

    2. Walking up to her and telling her how when they think things are going poorly for them they remember what she is going through and it makes their lives seem easy.

    3. Offering “helpful” references like 1 Corinthians 10:13 and Romans 8:28 to “encourage” her that God will work things out and hasn’t abandoned her. The first of course deals with the temptation to sin and the second primarily ought to be read–in my opinion–as explaining how God will redeem difficulty but it has an overtone of that caused by enemies of God.

    I told her my view was “The gift of difficulty is provided to the community through the experience of the individual and it is there for the community to bear alongside the individual.” She said that is actually a helpful perspective and wish more believers thought of it exactly that way.

    It isn’t that God won’t provide the individual with support separate from what the community provides. It is that we are very specifically to be known by our love for each other. It is a very sad testimony that we are so insensitive that we have to be instructed on basic concepts like what is loving and what is careful and what is sensitive.

    Which is to say: is the work of the Holy Spirit so quiet that we can bully right through his guidance as we end up being extraordinarily offensive through ham-handed efforts to “help”? Or is the problem a deeper one than that? I generally believe it might very well be our culture of rugged individualism (or at least the myth thereof) teaching anti-grace in a false effort to create the appearance of strength when the kind of comfort that often is needed is the quiet, listening presence of others.

    My “prooftext” is the book of Job of course. His friends just couldn’t shut up. Until God told them to have Job pray for them, of course, and after that we don’t hear another word from them…though they did obey God and have Job pray for them it seems!!

    My brushes with difficulty–we’re in a new one now as a family though I can’t really discuss it at the moment–have led me to treasure very much the mere thought of my name or my family’s name being mentioned before the Throne of Heaven. It is extraordinarily comforting to me to consider God hearing my name mentioned not once, not twice, not three or four times per day but sometimes hundreds. It really can get you through an otherwise impossible situation to know that it is happening.

    And if you were to mention my daughter Kelsey before the Father’s Throne frequently, I promise we would greatly appreciate it.

  21. says

    You know, it occurs to me that grace can go both ways.

    I know a fellow who lost his daughter years ago and adamantly says that one should never tell someone that it was God’s will. I lost my mother when I was only a boy. Seeing how God has used her death in my life, difficult as it was, has been the most comforting thought and it was that very reminder from others that I took comfort in. So in a way, this kind of advice can be subjective.

    That observation made, where one thing comforts one but not another, when you are hurting and people make unhelpful comments intended to be helpful, it’s most helpful to at least recognize the intention over the substance and be grateful that someone cares enough to try. There are, after all, people for whom no verbal salve heals and who will angrily reject any gift of mercy. May I not be that way when misery comes and people offer sour milk as sweet. May I be grateful enough to at least make cottage cheese from sour milk.

    • June Greenstreet says

      The original message and subsequent comments have been very helpful in understanding what to say/do and what to avoid. As I was reading, though, my heart was wanting to say something that I was not able to put my finger on – until I read this comment. It totally resonated with my heart. Thank you, Jim.

      If I may, I would like to add a couple of reflections on what has also helped me during devestating seasons of my life and which I have attempted to emulate.

      When my 2 year old grandson drowned in the family pool while with a babysitter, I had many many notes of condolences and sympathy. I read each one with gratitude until I opened one tiny card that simply said on the front “I am so sorry…” and inside “I cannot even imagine your pain.” I wept so hard and believe it was because I felt my pain was understood by not being understood. Simple validation.

      Another thing I have realized is that, over the years while I have grown in my walk with our Lord, I have probably said/done all of what you note should not be said or done. I could wallow in much guilt if I focused on that, so I have chosen to “forgive myself” and learn from my mistakes by extending to those in the learning process as much grace as the circumstances I am experiencing will allow. The more I realize God’s amazing grace to me, the more grace I am able to extend to others.

      And one final comment – because I have been a believer for over 40 years and have been through many difficult circumstances during that time, many people have shared scripture with me in their attempt to help. Some have shared this truth without grace and it has been painful; however, despite my anger at the messanger, God used His message to complete a work in my heart. Although the perfect message is enveloped in a balance of grace and truth, if I had to choose, I would rather truth without grace over grace without truth. I think of Phil 1:15-18 – God is always able to use His truth despite the manner or intent in which it is delivered. I believe He is always working death in one and life in another. If I had not made the many mistakes I did make over the years, I can only imagine the arrogance I may have today. Thanking my God for His amazing grace…and you both for your postings.

  22. William Thornton says

    I appreciate the thoughts. When I have been especially close to folks I pastor who have been through such things, I sometimes ask them what others did or said that was especially helpful or unhelpful. Answers were the usual suspects, most of which are covered here.

    I hate to admit it but early on as a pastor things I said, ‘counsel’ I offered to people I’m difficulty was as much for my comfort and well-being as theirs. As a young man, I passed on an opportunity for CPE. I had the time and it was convenient. I was an idiot back then about a lot of things.

    • D.L. Payton says

      William T

      I have Ph.D in Idiocy which I earned as a young pastor. I suspect that most of us have been there. I suppose the key is to grow in wisdom and grace. I would like to think that as I matured I was stripped of those credentials. To be honest some days I am not so sure. Growing in wisdom has been a life long experience for me. Two steps forward, one back..some time the other way around.

      • says

        I too realized after our own experience with cancer how I had failed to minister to some others in their struggle. Thankful for grace among brothers and sisters in Christ.

        • D.L. Payton says


          When it is all said and done God’s people are still the most precious fellowship in the world, warts and all.

  23. Jess says


    Sir, I wished it worked the way you say, but it doesn’t. There are too many factors that come into play, in a perfect world what you say would be true, but!!!

    I’ve lost both of my parents, and I lost two daughters. Looking back, the loss of my parents was not 1/10 the pain of losing a child. After losing my daughters, I had folks tell me I know how you feel, I lost a parent, or I know how you feel, my sister lost a son. That is 100% bologna, even if two different parents lost children, they still have no idea how the other feels. It’s their child, it’s their memories, it’s their pain, and the grieving process is theirs alone. Some parents become suicidal after the loss of a child. Some go into a deep depression. My depression was so bad I wanted to die and couldn’t.

    Every time I saw someone coming to my house to offer support, I wanted to go hide, and did several times. I prayed to be left alone. I look back on the situation and still wished they had left me alone. So you see Jim, not everyone is the same. I wasn’t grateful at all that someone cared, I just wanted to be left alone. In a time of death, I don’t care if I am graceful toward some one or not, because of the pain. If someone is going to offer support, they need to keep these things in mind.

    • says

      I regret your loss and your pain. I certainly acknowledge that this is deeply personal and individual. However, that fact makes it impossible to know up front what individuals personally need: whether to stay away or to go do something for them or offer the perfect word of hope for them. I know people who have lost children who wondered why they didn’t even receive a call from someone or other. It places those who desire to help in an impossible situation.

      Suffering loss as a Christian, however, doesn’t relieve my (and I’m intentionally making it a personal conviction here) responsibility to my brothers and sisters to minister to them in their ministry to me should I suffer some great loss. I’m blessed with the knowledge that all of my children profess faith in Christ and actively pursue their place in ministry. Should I lose any one of them for any reason, I’m comforted by the fact that I’ll see them again, able to look back on God’s perfect plan in all this. With that comfort in mind, I’m certain that I would be ready to gratefully accept the heartfelt attempts of my brothers and sisters who remain in this world as they offer lesser comforts.

      If you have no such conviction, but rather out of the pain of your loss detest your brothers and sisters who remain with you, so be it. Just understand that they are imperfect vessels who believe it is their responsibility as Christians to minister to you. Would you deprive someone else of their ministry by instructing them all to refrain from trying to help people who are hurting? They will certainly conflate your instruction to stay away from you with what other people need.

      • Jess says


        To make matters worse, someone brought bad food to my house during the grieving process. Two of us almost died of food poisoning. They almost lost me in the emergency room.

        • Jess says

          Jim, What I’m saying is that during these trying times that we don’t think about our brothers and sisters, and their needs or ministry. We have to much to deal with on our own.

  24. Tom Bryant says

    This was really a helpful list, Todd.
    I did a service for a lady who left a 17 year old son behind. I was sitting with him before the service when a person told him, “Well, God needed your mother in heaven.” He actually stood and yelled, “Didn’t he know how much I needed her?” It got very quiet.

  25. Jess says

    I even had one lady to tell me I know how you feel, I lost a child too, I had to have him put to sleep, he was a great dog. The first thing come to my mind, and I couldn’t help it, is piss on that dog. People are crazy!

  26. Susan H. says

    I would just add that we should not say to someone who is hurting/suffering…”call me if you need anything”….believe me, they won’t call…they can’t gather themselves enough to call, in most cases. You, who want to help, have to show up, or make yourself easily available in such an unobtrusive way that the other person will know you really mean it, and will allow you to help since you have “showed up”. I often hear people say “call if you need me”; I know in my heart, I probably won’t call…but I would be very grateful if they just were consistent and showed up.

  27. says

    Very good advice… Thanks for the article Todd! As prevalent as cancer is these days, this information will be very helpful to all the readers.

  28. Beth says

    I find the list of “not helpful/definitely unhelpful ” hilarious. I went through about every type of breast cancer treatment and experienced huge encouragement and all the typical unhelpful stuff. As a scientist, all the advice from people who believe in “alternative treatments” that has never been proven to be helpful in experiments particularly tiresome.

  29. Dave Miller says

    This is quickly becoming the most read and shared post we’ve ever had. It has had 3000 views today! Over 400 Facebook shares.

    It is a fantastic article!

  30. says

    I lost 3 of my grandparents to cancer. And even though I was a kid during that time, I can still remember some people jumping stumbling over themselves with the “not helpful” and “defiantly avoid” statements. Indeed going through that myself, is one of the things I know will help me when I begin to minister to suffering and grieving families. Knowing what hurts to hear, helps avoid saying those things yourself.

    I just hope people actually read these and are honest with themselves as to whether they have, unintentionally mind you, said some hurtful things to those who are already hurting.

  31. Dean Stewart says

    The week my wife gave birth to our first child I was diagnosed with renal cell cancer. 24 month later the doctors diagnosed me terminal giving me approximately two years to live. In those two years they removed my right kidney, a section of my right lung and a piece of my left lung. Two passages became very special to me. One is Job 13:15, “Though He slay me yet will I trust in Him.” This passage gave me peace that I could trust God with my family if I were to die. I went from panicking over a 30 year old wife and an 18 month old son living without a husband and father. God assured me I could trust Him.

    The second verse is I Thessalonians 5:18, “In everything give thanks.” Being grateful to God is a key to being spiritually well. I never use the Job passage in counseling the ill. I use I Thessalonians 5:18 often. Praising God and giving thanks liberates us in a remarkable way when we are facing difficult times.

    Thanks for post Todd.


  1. […] How to (and how NOT to) Minister to Families Battling Cancer “Reflecting on our past and present experience with cancer, we have been blessed to have family, friends and a church family who have been wonderfully supportive. Quite often, people want to know how they can help and encourage someone going through the experience of cancer or other medical related trials. ” […]

  2. […] How to (And Not to) Minister to Families Battling Cancer. “Reflecting on our past and present experience with cancer, we have been blessed to have family, friends and a church family who have been wonderfully supportive. Quite often, people want to know how they can help and encourage someone going through the experience of cancer or other medical related trials. I hope that you will find this list useful as you minister to others.” […]